Writing an Abstract
In its most basic form, an abstract is a summary. Yet, abstracting a scholarly article from a historical journal is much more than just writing a contents summary of what you read, because the specific nature of historical research must be taken into consideration.
First, you are confronted with a scientific study written primarily for academics, as against a textbook written for students. You will take note that the scope of such a study is very narrow, but the approach is in‑depth. The explicit application of the critical method with its extensive scholarly apparatus is the hallmark of a study intended for academic peers.
Secondly, while reading the article (and writing the abstract) you will have to bear in mind the six critical aspects of all historical scholarly research, as noted below. Thus, this is essentially an exercise in following the development of thought, and critical procedure, of the scholar herself. Finally, these aspects must be kept in mind when you do your own research, i.e. while working on your term paper. You will attempt to follow the thought patterns of a real historian, constantly recalling the constituent elements. To qualify as scholarly, all research must have an aim, consider previous research, critically examine the sources (or data), decide on a method, and be self‑critical about results.
Scholars cannot afford to ignore previous research on their particular topic. They must be up‑to‑date on recent developments. Awareness of current issues in their field will enhance the value of their own research and place it into perspective.
All historical inquiry begins with a thesis, i.e. a topical question or statement based upon previous knowledge, or on secondary readings concerning a historical problem. Theses must be open to criticism during research, and can be confirmed, rejected, or modified. This is reflected in the aims.
All research can only be as good as the sources used. Putting questions to sources that cannot possibly answer them is counterproductive. The nature of the sources themselves critically influence direction, methodology, and results of the study.
In the natural sciences, raw data (as generated from experiments) must first be manipulated (i.e. collated in tables, statistically processed by computers, etc.) before it can be interpreted. The way this data is measured, counted, compared, etc. is ‘methodology. Primary sources in history also constitute raw data, and must be analyzed, categorized, etc., too, taking into consideration their particular nature, before interpretation. This is historical methodology.
What are the results of this study? What makes it significant? How does it relate to previous research?
Does the author criticize his/her method/results? Are questions for further research raised?
From: William Chew, “Clio’s Quadrivium…,” The History Teacher, 28(1995), pp. 172-173.